ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Ferries set sail for Greek islands for the first time in a week Wednesday after the government invoked emergency powers to force striking seamen back to work and restore supplies to some of the country's most isolated populations.
Thousands of demonstrators converged on the country's largest port to protest the order, while the country's two main unions declared a regional strike in the greater Athens area for the day in solidarity with the seamen.
The strike in the Attica region affected public services and included a four-hour work stoppage by public transport workers.
It was the latest in a string of recent strikes in Greece, which has imposed deeply resented income cuts and tax hikes in exchange for the international rescue loans that have kept it afloat since May 2010.
The seamen's six-day strike over long arrears in pay and austerity measures had left dozens of islands without any means of resupply. The Cyclades islands' chamber of commerce this week said the strike had led to shortages in goods, prevented treatment of serious health cases and even stopped the transportation of dead bodies for burial.
Trucks carrying food and other products loaded onto ferries that set sail from the port of Piraeus for the Cyclades and the Dodecanese islands early Wednesday morning, unhampered by the union-backed protesters who began to gather at the port at dawn.
Riot police cordoned off the Merchant Marine Ministry to prevent a demonstration by thousands of protesters from reaching the building.
The strikers returned to work after the conservative-led government implemented a rarely used civil mobilization order for the second time in two weeks. The three-party coalition last used the order, under which those who defy it risk arrest and jail time of up to five years, to end an eight-day metro workers' strike in January.
"The government must know that the systematic undermining of union and labor laws violate the country's constitution and international and European agreements that protect workers' rights," the civil servants union ADEDY said in a statement. It described the measure as an "anti-democratic practice of criminalizing labor and strike action."
Seamen have been demanding more than six months' worth of arrears in pay, and the signing of collective work contracts with ferry companies. Merchant Marine Minister Costas Mousouroulis said Tuesday that the government had done what it could to address their concerns.
Farmers are also threatening to block major highways across the country to protest new tax laws, while state media employees have been on strike for three days.
On Wednesday, stallholders at farmers' markets held a peaceful protest outside the Agriculture Ministry in Athens, handing out tons of fresh produce for free to passers-by. Protesters are pressing the government to help lower their production costs by reducing fuel and product prices, and to scrap plans to increase taxation on agricultural activity.